It's law school application time and my office is located next to the office of our pre-law advisor for Liberal Arts Career Serivces, Tatem Oldham. I see a steady stream of students meeting with Tatem trying to decide everything from whether they should go to law school in the first place to determining which law school is the best choice. As she is every year at this time, Tatem is immersed in personal statements: good, bad, and ugly.
Law schools base their admission decisions on several factors: your grade point average, your LSAT scores, your background and experiences, and your personal statement or essay.
The personal statement is valuable to an admissions officer for several reasons-- it provides a sample of your writing style (and skill), it takes the place of an interview, and it provides a more personal introduction to a candidate. Since you only have about 500 words to work with, it's imperative that you create a statement that has impact, interest, and intelligence. Here's a link to a great resource for writing law school essays from Boston College.
Given that the personal statement can be a key factor in your admission to law school what should you avoid? I asked Tatem to give me the top five mistakes she sees in essays-and it only took her about two minutes to name them.
Top five mistakes on law school personal statements:
1. Failure to follow the directions. Each law school has its own requirements for the personal essay. Some will leave the topic open to you, but others will ask you to write about a specific subject. READ THE INSTRUCTIONS BEFORE YOU START WRITING YOUR ESSAY.
2. Grammatical and spelling errors. Remember, law schools are judging your writing skills. If you can't write a grammatically correct essay, you probably won't write a grammatically correct brief. Proofread. Proofread again. Ask someone else to proofread it. Do not rely on spell-check.
3. Leading with a famous quote and/or using trite phrases. Do not start your essay with "It was the best of times. It was the worst of times." Lead with your own words--not someone else's. Avoid using trite phrases like "I want to change the world", "I love the law", or "I want to be an international lawyer because I love to travel." They are meaningless and don't project a professional demeanor. (This is the law school equivalent of telling an employer you "want to work with people.") Dig deeper for your reasons for pursuing a legal career.
4. Emphatically stating your plan to specialize in an area of the law when nothing in your background backs that up. If you say you are destined to become a criminal lawyer, what have you done so far? Can you demonstrate concrete knowledge of the subject? Have you completed an internship with the local police force? Have you taken courses in criminology or criminal justice? If not, well then, criminal law is just a nice idea. You don't have the gravitas to back it up yet, so don't bring it up.
5. Focusing on a mentor or significant person in your life without bringing the topic back to you. If someone has influenced you to pursue a law career, that can be a great topic for an essay, but be sure you spend as much time discussing how you will use what you've learned from them, rather than spending the whole essay extolling their virtues.
You can find more helpful tips on the pre-law process through the Pre-law Advising Guide written by Tatem and the staff of Liberal Arts Career Services at The University of Texas at Austin. Please note: this is for personal use only; the guide is copyrighted by The University of Texas; all rights are reserved.
You can also find assistance through the Law School Admissions Council (LSAC).
One final comment: Write your statement yourself. Get help if you need it (it's always a good idea to get feedback), but write your own essay. Don't pay someone to write it for you- not only will the essay not be yours, you run the risk that a law school may discover you didn't write it and ruin any chance of acceptance. Writing a personal essay can help you clarify your intentions for going to law school and bolster your commitment to the field. Ideally, you will inspire yourself as you're writing. That, in and of itself, is a reason to write the essay.